What Bangladesh can teach the world about climate disaster preparation

A man holds a child as he moves to the nearest cyclone shelter at Shah Porir Dwip during the landfall of Cyclone Mocha in Teknaf, Bangladesh, May 14, 2023. REUTERS/Jibon Ahmed

A man holds a child as he moves to the nearest cyclone shelter at Shah Porir Dwip during the landfall of Cyclone Mocha in Teknaf, Bangladesh, May 14, 2023. REUTERS/Jibon Ahmed

Bangladesh has invested in early warning systems, a network of 14,000 cyclone shelters, evacuation plans, and restoration of storm-buffering mangroves, as well as an army of volunteers

By Farah Kabir, Country Director, ActionAid Bangladesh

When news last weekend broke that Cyclone Mocha, the most severe in recent record to form over the Indian Ocean, was set to make landfall over Bangladesh my heart sank. You might, understandably, have expected that me and hundreds of millions of other Bangladeshis would be apprehensive - and we were.

Given ActionAid’s work across the sprawling camps of Cox’s Bazar, home to over one million Rohingya refugees, we were fearful that people living in temporary shelters would be in the eye of the storm.

But as thundering rains and gushing winds came to shore, we were sober, calm, and collected; we knew the role we all had to play collectively to keep ourselves and our communities safe. With Bangladesh ranking seventh among countries most affected by climate change, and with rising sea levels, droughts and floods frequently wreaking havoc on lives and livelihoods, disaster risk and preparedness is taken extremely seriously.

As soon we heard news that Cyclone Mocha was making landfall, a clear action plan was developed to keep those living in climate-vulnerable communities protected. Overnight, 700,000 people were moved at lightning speed to a network of over 14,000 cyclone shelters across the country or into makeshift facilities including schools and mosques.

On Wednesday, the World Meteorological Organisation warned that our planet will breach the 1.5-degree Celsius ceiling for global warming by 2027, at least on a temporary basis. Not only are we already past this tipping point in Bangladesh – we’ve been victim to events like Cyclone Mocha and Amphan for several decades now.

It’s worth reminding you that countries like Bangladesh, responsible for less than 1% of all global carbon emissions, are on the frontline of a climate crisis they did not create and that every year, with the climate worsening yet further, we are still living a colonial legacy of extraction and pollution.

And while people are still tragically losing their lives every year in Bangladesh to extreme climate shocks, you need only turn the pages of our nation’s history book a few pages further back to learn that the situation used to be far worse.

In 1991, a deadly cyclone claimed the lives of nearly 140,000 people in Bangladesh alone.  The scenes were unlike anything I’ve ever seen in my life or working in the humanitarian sector. I remember whole villages being inundated by floodwaters, and in several areas up to 90% of crops had been washed away and shrimp farms – a vital export – were left in ruin. The human toll was unimaginable and the cost to rebuild the country was eyewatering.

As a country we vowed “never again”, using the memory of the cyclone in 1991 as a sobering reminder of how vulnerable Bangladesh is to climate change. In the years since, cyclones have come and gone but we are now more resilient than ever. We’ve invested in improving early warning systems, an extensive network of 14,000 cyclone shelters across the country, evacuation plans like we saw last weekend, and the restoration of our vital mangroves which protect coastal communities at risk of rising sea levels. And critical to our response to disaster has been the role of over 80,000 volunteers across the country.

Laily Begum is one of these community volunteers and has worked with ActionAid for over a decade to help to reduce risk and raise awareness of disaster risk management. In 2013, she led an emergency response to Cyclone Mahashen in her community in coastal Bangladesh, sharing early weather warnings and helping vulnerable people including elderly people and the disabled into shelters. Laily is one among many - and her role in training women to work as community volunteers in emergency responses has ensured that tens of thousands of women like her were able to keep their communities safe when Cyclone Mocha hit.

Last year, the United Nations announced efforts to make sure that every country had an extreme weather early warning system in place by 2027 - a huge step forward in helping countries on the frontline of the climate crisis to improve their resilience to climate shocks.

And globally, the picture is not all doom and gloom. According to the WMO, the number of extreme weather events increased fivefold between 1970 and 2019. Economic losses increased even more - by a factor of seven. However, thanks to improved early warning and disaster risk reduction strategies, the number of deaths fell to 40% of the 1970 level by 2021.

Despite concerning climate projections, this is encouraging - that countries like Bangladesh can prepare effectively for crisis. But it is also a call to redouble our efforts and for the international community to pay climate reparations to countries like Bangladesh that have barely left a mark on global emissions.

Events like Cyclone Mocha and floods in neighbouring Pakistan should sharpen the minds of richer nations that maintain systems of fossil fuel extraction and pollution that endanger us all. In its response to climate change, Bangladesh cannot be seen purely as a victim of these systems of exploitation but as an example to countries across the world on the frontline of the climate disaster.

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Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Context or the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

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